The year 1968 was a seminal one for several societal-shaking concerns. The war in Vietnam was in full rage. The world was shocked by the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The nation's voters elected Richard M. Nixon President.
And 14 couples in Los Angeles thought they would try to do something about cancer—three years before President Nixon officially declared war on the disease with the National Cancer Act of 1971.
The couples were responding to the request of their friend, Beverly Wolman, who at age 39 was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Ms. Wolman said she didn't want others to cry over her or send her gifts; what she wanted was for them to start a foundation to help cancer research—an independent volunteer foundation, she specified, that could operate more efficiently than many larger organizations that also carried large overheads.
The couples created the Concern Foundation—for CONquer canCER Now.
One of the founders had heard about some work on immunology being undertaken by Dr. David W. Weiss at Hebrew University in Jerusalem (he's now at the Lautenberg Center for Tumor Immunology) and the Foundation decided to start by sponsoring his research, which subsequently received additional funding from the US National Institutes of Health in 1970.
The Foundation adopted a model of providing seed money for young investigators involved in basic cancer research in immunology, immunotherapy, and related areas, believing that focusing on the immune system might unlock the causes of cancer and help eventually provide a cure.
They formed an international Scientific Review Committee that meets every other year to evaluate grant proposals. Over the years, the Foundation has raised more than $30 million for cancer research, and funded the work of numerous investigators including the early AIDS research of Dennis J. Slamon, MD, PhD, at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Today, more than 50 cancer researchers are funded worldwide, with more than 20 receiving individual annual grants of $50,000, which are renewable for a second year if progress can be demonstrated.
Of the remaining grantees, 16 are at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and 15 are at Hebrew University, the two institutions Concern continues to fund through ongoing endowments.
The Foundation's small staff, core membership of some 450, and about 10,000 annual contributors, provide the support and donations to keep administrative overhead at a very low five cents on each donor dollar, in keeping with the original mandate to run a cost-efficient operation, says Concern's President, Derek Alpert.
He added that the organization can maintain its headquarters in Beverly Hills because one of Concern's donors provides the facilities at a fraction of market cost.
Previously at Vital Options
I first met Mr. Alpert in the late-1990s while working with Vital Options International TeleSupport Cancer Network and The Group Room cancer talk radio show.
At that time he was Vice President of Vital Options' Board of Directors, and in addition to his work with Concern, was an executive for a major independent music publishing company in Los Angeles. In 2003 Mr. Alpert left the music industry to work full time for Concern as its president.
“After I spent 26 years in the music business, our company was sold to an international corporation, and I found out that as a 46-year-old then, I was considered too old to continue in the music business. I'd been spending 40 plus hours a week as a volunteer at Concern for years,” he said during a telephone interview, “and I knew I always had an offer on the table to become more involved with the organization.”
That involvement began in 1979 when he working in his family's business, A&M Records, the company founded by his uncle, Herb Alpert, of the Tijuana Brass, and his partner Jerry Moss.
“Concern had been around 11 years by then, and the original founders encouraged their children to start raising money to support cancer research,” he said. “Two of my friends, Rick and Nancy Powell, whose father Larry was then president of Concern, twisted my arm to come to the first meeting of what was to become Concern II.
It was held at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), and the speaker was Stuart Siegel, MD, now Director of Childrens Center for Cancer and Blood Diseases, and Head of the Division of Hematology-Oncology at CHLA.”
Mr. Alpert said he really had no interest in joining the effort, and that he was far removed from cancer in those days, not knowing anyone who had battled or died from the disease. But he said that as part of the meeting, Dr. Siegel invited the young adult group to visit the cancer pediatric floor.
“I saw the children and their parents, and I was hooked. How could I not do something to help these kids survive? When you looked into those kids' eyes, how could you not want to help them?”
Concern III: ‘Friend’ Rather than ‘Fund’ Raisers
He then helped organize Concern II—which coexisted along with Concern—as an organization that ran low-cost fundraising events for younger adults 18 to 35 years old, and decided to donate the money it raised to pediatric cancer.
Now, Concern II's teen-aged children have started Concern III, and brought in their friends. Mr. Alpert's 16-year-old twins and 19-year-old daughter are all active members.
Concern III has taken over some of the projects started by Concern II, most notably outreach programs that are “friend” rather than “fund” raisers, which bring together cancer patients with those who donate to cancer research.
“I believe it's important for people to see where their money is going,” said Mr. Alpert, reflecting on his own experience more than a quarter century ago at Childrens Hospital.
It changed his life, and he's determined to change other lives too. In fact, he tells of Concern III teens donating not only their time, but portions of their bat or bar mitzvah gift money to the Foundation.
Annual Block Party
Concern's hallmark fundraiser is its annual block party, which will celebrate its 31st event this July at Paramount Studios. For years the block party was held on Rodeo Drive, and was the only event the City of Beverly Hills ever allowed to take place there with the streets and stores closed to the public.
The block party moved to Paramount Studios for several years until 9/11, when private events were banned at movie studios, and was celebrated at the Petersen Automotive Museum, until this year when Paramount was permitted to open its gates again.
In the early days, Concern fundraisers involved such entertainers as Jack Benny, Andy Williams, Sonny & Cher, Liza Minnelli, Frank Sinatra, Jack Lemmon, and others. But despite the celebrity-rich culture of the area, the events themselves are now the attraction, said Mr. Alpert.
The block parties are huge, casual events, catered by leading Los Angeles restaurants, and featuring entertainment, games and auctions—all donated by sponsors.
Once a year, for the past 17 years, Concern also hosts hundreds of pediatric cancer patients for a day of fun at Universal Studios Hollywood's amusement park.
Raised $2.4 Million Last Year
These and other contributions and events helped Concern raise $2.4 million in 2004, an increase of $500,000 from the year before.
After 37 years, 10 of the 14 original founding families are still actively involved in the Foundation, and recruitment for future generations continues to look strong. Concern has also been approached by a major Los Angeles-area publication, he said—which named the Foundation as one of LA's leading charities—to come aboard as media sponsor for the next block party.
However, Mr. Alpert says he's really looking forward to Concern's last block party, when there's been a cure for cancer.
“I'd like to turn off the lights and walk out of the door of our office for the last time, when we've met our goal and been put out of business with a cure for cancer,” he said.